I should thank my lucky stars, because after yesterday’s rain, today it was clear -if still muggy- all day long! This means I was able to fulfill my master plan of going all the way to Naoshima!
Naoshima is this island in the Inland Sea that sits between Honshu and Shikoku, two of the main Japanese islands along with Hokkaido in the north and Kyushu in the south (Kyushu is where I just came from, where Fukuoka and Nagasaki are). The island has become famous lately because the Benesse Foundation has turned the island itself into a modern art museum of sorts, with several avant-garde sculptures scattered along the shore, not to mention multiple actual art museums that are as valued for Tadao Ando’s architecture as for their collection.
The drawback is that it’s kind of a pain to get there, especially from the main cities like Kyoto and Osaka. Okay, here goes: from Shin-Osaka station, I had to take the shinkansen to Okayama (50 min), then a regional train to Chayamachi (20 min), then another regional train to Uno (25 min), then a ferry to Naoshima’s Miyanoura Port (20 min), then a bus from Miyanoura Port to Tsutsujiso (10 min) and then the free shuttle from there to the Benesse House Museum (5 min) to properly start sightseeing. Taking into account all the waiting around between one transport and the next, I left the hotel at around 9 and walked into the Benesse Museum at about one o’clock!
The Benesse Museum, which is also an expensive and quick-selling hotel, occupies several buildings, one of them the main museum. The collection is actually pretty small, but the main draw is the place itself and its amazing minimalist architecture with excellent views of the forest and the sea around it. I stopped for lunch at the café, looking out at the island below from the top of a hill; although photography is forbidden inside the museum, at least it’s allowed to take pictures of the view!
On my way out, I walked along the forest road past the Lee Ufan museum and into the Chichu Art Museum. At ¥2060 (€16.80) it is an expensive museum, especially if you take into account that it has just three rooms (!) but once again it’s more about the space itself than the artwork inside.
Rather than erecting a full new building, the Chichu Art Museum has been built inside a hill, such that the natural landscape is barely affected. Still, thanks to good use of several atriums of geometric shapes, natural light reaches even the underground rooms.
It’s tragic that here too they didn’t let us take pictures, because the smooth, hard-edged concrete shapes of the rooms and corridors are striking, closer to what you’d expect from a sci-fi movie than from a museum. As for the exhibits, one of them is for Monet’s lilies (I’ve said this before, but coming from Paris, the impressionists have a little less impact now) and the other two have contemporary sculpture exhibits.
(Since I didn’t take pics of Chichu, here’s the Lee Ufan Museum.)
After coming down the hill, I thought of taking the bus to see the Art House Project, which is in the town of Honmura and apparently consists of a bunch of traditional Japanese houses and workshops turned into exhibition spaces for contemporary art, but I discovered to my horror that there wouldn’t be another bus for another hour! (It was like three o’clock so I guess it wasn’t precisely rush hour) So I could either sit in the muggy sun for 50 minutes, or I could walk for what Google Maps estimated as 20 minutes. Naturally, I thought: “It won’t be twenty minutes when I am walking.”
So off I went, and I took the opportunity to gawk at the island around me. For all its fame and success, it’s really not very developed, and everywhere I could see tiny beaches with not a soul anywhere in sight. Here and there, too, in unexpected places, I would walk past an interesting modern sculpture, just standing in a small lawn or on a stone slab.
The highlight of the walk was, of course, running into Yayoi Kusama’s famous Yellow Pumpkin, which has become the official icon for Naoshima (I almost missed it, but its sister the Red Pumpkin is right in Miyanoura port). It’s this cute polka-dotted pumpkin standing at the end of a pier, and it’s a great spot for photos. You can naturally get all the yellow and red pumpkin merch you can shake a stick at in any Naoshima shop!
By the time I made it to the Tsutsujiso -or rather, by the time the bus made it to Tsutsujiso- it was almost four, and I was exhausted, and I kept thinking of the three hours it would take me to get back to Osaka, so I skipped the Art House Project and went back to Miyanoura, to retrace my steps of ferry, train, and shinkansen.
Naoshima is a very peculiar place, unlike anything I’ve ever seen, so I recommend the detour -but it’s just too much for a day trip. Just getting there is a piece of work, and with more time I would have checked out the Lee Ufan museum in addition to the houses in Honmura, so if you decide to visit I strongly suggest you book one night at one of the hostels or vacation apartments in town (two nights, on the other hand, seems too much and you’d run out of places to go).
This marks the end for my third trip to Japan. Ending on an unabashedly modern and trendy note! This time it’s been a different experience, to be in Tokyo for work before going off on holiday, but I’m very happy with everything that I got to do in that one week. I got to see places that never make it to any generic Japan itineraries, places that are significantly less touristy; because of that, I feel like I got much closer to everyday Japanese life in places that don’t cater to tourists (I went to some places where people openly stared and even pointed at me). I think that, even in your first trip to Japan, even when you have to visit all the main cities, you should still reserve a couple of days to go somewhere less travelled to get the true “inner Japan” experience.
So… where do we go next?